Monday, January 15, 2007

Monday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Stretching Our Skins

Readings: Hebrews 5:1-10; Psalm 110:1, 2, 3, 4; Mark 2:18-22

I’ve begun noticing how it now costs a little more to da bao food from the hawker centre or foodcourt. We’re being charged for the container as well as the contents. It’s not unlike how in some countries supermarkets charge more for the use of their plastic bags. It’s a laudable effort to “go green,” to save the environment. Whatever the reason for the extra charge, the point is that we now have to consider the container as well as the contents.

Isn’t this what’s happening in our readings today? Just a day after we joyfully considered how Jesus changes the ordinary water of our everyday lives into the new wine of salvation, our readings remind us that it’s also important to consider the containers we use to receive this precious gift.

However, what’s at stake here is much more than the twenty cents extra that the hawker charges, more important even than saving the environment. Nobody puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and wine is lost and the skins too. No! New wine, fresh skins! Using the wrong container can actually result in the loss of the contents.

But what does this mean for us in practical terms? What does it mean to use new as opposed to old wineskins? Clearly the advantage of the former over the latter is flexibility. Just as new wineskins have the ability to stretch to contain the still-fermenting new wine, so too is Jesus inviting the Pharisees and all of us to allow our religious practices, our ideas, our attitudes, our hearts to be flexible enough to welcome the new and often surprising ways in which God comes to meet us everyday.

This is not easy, especially because it’s perhaps much less frightening to think only in straight lines and right angles. Isn’t this why we tend to prefer clear-cut definitions and unchanging answers to the questions of life? Thinking in this way, there is also less danger of going astray, greater likelihood of remaining faithful to what we have received, or so we might think. But isn't there also the danger of hampering the fermentation of the new wine, of stifling the dynamism of the Spirit? What to do?

The first reading provides a good illustration of what we are talking about. Meditating on who Jesus is and what he accomplishes for us, the writer uses the idea of priesthood. Jesus is the Supreme High Priest who has offered the final and only truly effective sacrifice for our sins. There are problems with this description, however, and the writer is aware of them. For priests were drawn only from the tribe of Levi, and Jesus was not of that tribe. Neither did Jesus offer sacrifice in the Temple the way the Levites did.

If we were to cling then to the prevailing idea and definition of priesthood, we would have to say that the first reading is mistaken. But the writer is not ignorant. He is carefully stretching our understanding of priesthood in light of what Jesus does for us. Jesus is priest not of the order of Levi, but of Melchizedek, whose origin cannot be pinned down definitively but who is nonetheless described in the Old Testament as priest of God Most High (see Genesis 14:18). And although Jesus could not offer sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple, he learnt obedience through suffering even unto death. The sacrifice he offers is in the temple of his own body, in the submission of his own will to the Father.

The new wine of our salvation, the same salvation that we welcomed at Christmas, needs to be received in supple minds and flexible hearts. The stretching that is necessary will often be uncomfortable, disorientating and even frightening. But isn’t this a small price to pay when compared with the immensity of the gift to be received?

How is the Lord stretching us today?

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